Review: “Froning – Fittest Man in History”

Last night I watched Froning: Fittest Man in History, a new documentary film that was just released on iTunes and Amazon.

If you don’t follow CrossFit, the film is about Rich Fronting, who won the CrossFit Games four years in a row from 2011 to 2014.

To provide you some broader context in the online qualifier for the Games he came in first place out of 110,145 athletes worldwide.

I am a bit fascinated by Rich. In addition to this movie I have also read his 2013 memoir titled First: What it Takes to Win.

I am struck by how very different we are. He was athletic, active and fearless as a kid playing tons of sports and competitive in everything, even chores.

He was outside all the time, surrounded by tons of cousins who were like brothers growing up. In comparison, I was funny but quiet and focused on academic success with just an older sister often doing her own thing.

My sports were more individual – swimming, golf, tennis – and I lived in a neighborhood where there were few kids and you had to drive from house to house to go trick-or-treating.

Extracurricular activities included piano lessons and cotillion. Yet similarly both of us were raised by very loving parents who instilled a strong work ethic.

Our time and energy have led us to very different pursuits and outcomes in life yet we are somehow both passionate about CrossFit.

Today, it is of no revelation that the guy is an absolute beast. The film share his stats:

  • Height – 5’9″
  • Weight – 195 lb.
  • Chest – 43.7″
  • Waist – 33″
  • Hips – 39″
  • Upper Arm – 16.5″
  • Thighs – 25.5″

And I’m not really surprised to find out that he is a “dude” into “dude stuff”. He likes to shoot guns and lift weights.

There is a short montage of him on dirt bikes, ATVs, playing sports and goofing around. His friends explain that “He’s a very simple guy” and like “a 12-year old boy with a lot of money.”

If his life were on the big screen Rich says he’d want it to be a Michael Bay or Marvel movie. But it is not fair to only characterize him as some good ol’ country boy as to his credit he is also accurately portrayed as a devoted husband and father.

Rich’s success over the years has been attributed to the fact that his competitors haven’t figured out how to beat him because they haven’t discovered how to out train him.

His cousin Darren explains how when they first started CrossFit back in 2010 that he and Rich would do one workout per day taken directly off the main website.

Over time that then evolved into two-a-days and then eventually three and four workouts per day.

As many comment in the film, Rich loves programming and he knows what he’s doing. One of the highlights of the film is that they then show a regular day of training for Rich:

  • 10:00AM – 10 Rounds of Row 250 meters (Rest 2:1 work ratio)
  • 11:30AM – 5 Rounds of 10 Deadlifts (225#) + 20 Wall Balls
  • 1:05PM – For Time 21 Weighted Pistols (65#) + 15 Clean & Jerks (185#) + 9 Muscle-ups
  • 1:25PM – For Time 21 Paralette Handstand Push-ups + 15 Snatches + 9 Muscle-ups
  • 3:00PM – 6 x 3 Snatch work
  • 7:30PM – Frantasy Land WOD = 21-15-9 reps of Thrusters (95#) & Pull-ups; 15-12-9 reps of Thrusters (115#) & Chest-to-bar pull-ups; 12-9-6 reps Thrusters (135#) & Bar muscle-ups

He believes his training is the epitome of CrossFit as it is based around high intensity, functional movements and constantly varied.

He is one of the best lifters in the sport and he dominates in the competitive arena. One talking head in the film says of Rich and his competitors, “He permits them to workout with him.”

The story of his rise is not epic as much as it is a reflection of his focus and commitment. At his first appearance at the Games in 2010 he famously failed on the rope climbs and it cost him the championship.

But rest be assured he fixed that problem and crushed the rope climbs in 2011 and took his first title.

Similarly in 2013 he was thrown into the pool during one of the workouts and he took 30th due to his weakness as a swimmer. Even after winning that year he remembered where he had fallen short in his performance and worked on his swimming.

In 2014 he took 8th place in the beach event that included an open water swim. The man is human. He has flaws but he strives to get better everyday. Rich does not rest on his laurels.

The film is not Oscar-worthy. It lacks some thrill as you already know the outcome from the beginning nor does the director do much to build up the suspense.

Perhaps because Rich already published a memoir they don’t rehash his life story too much. Much of the focus is on the 2014 Games.

Nevertheless, he is inspiring. Rich loves working out and challenging himself to see what the human body is capable of.

Watching all his energy and effort makes me want to try harder at the gym and put in more time.

His high school baseball coach notes at one point in the film that with Rich he was the “first to get there, last to leave.”. He also seems to be having fun. He can’t not workout out or do something athletic.

At the end of the film he explains that despite winning the CrossFit Games four years in a row and being crowned by many the fittest man in history that he is not satisfied.

He simply states, “There is still more to do.” Like many, I’ll be watching to see what’s next.

Review: “Level Up Your Life”

I have been following Steve Kamb via his very unique lifestyle website, for the past 3-4 years. Kamb has created a worldwide online community of “nerds” through his inspirational posts, nutrition guides and fitness resources.

By way of hobbits, superheroes, stormtroopers and Harry Potter, Kamb makes everything from yoga to weightlifting to the Paleo diet more easily accessible to average Joes, especially those who often get caught up in the fantasy and escape of comic books, video games and movies and too often ignore what’s happening in real life.

As a devoted reader of the website, I was excited for the release of his first book, “Level Up Your Life”.

It is both a memoir and self-help book as Kamb explains how he used his own love for video games as a way to structure the change he needed to bring about it in his own life so that he could live better.

Kamb knows change isn’t easy and that it doesn’t come in big leaps and bounds. Rather, the key to successful long-term sustainable change in life is incremental.

Think of the original Super Mario Brothers for NES – there were 8 worlds and each world had 4 levels that you had to complete before you ultimately could save Princess Toadstool from the clutches of the evil Bowser.

As you progressed, the enemies and obstacles became tougher. However, you were better prepared because of what you learned along the way, like how to time your jumps and how to swim around fish.

“Just like in games, if we can find a way to make small improvements and recognize those small improvements in our day-to-day lives, it’s likely to increase our overall happiness.”

Whether you are trying to lose weight, learn a new language, travel the world or develop a new skill, Kamb advocates this idea of “leveling-up”.

Take one step at a time but set clear goals of what you want to accomplish before you move onto the next level in your adventure.

For example, if you are looking to drop your body-fat percentage, the first level might be eliminating processed foods from your diet for 1-2 months.

Then after you have successfully completed that challenge, the next level might be reducing the number of alcoholic beverages you have each week.

The change will happen but it won’t be overnight. Similarly, if you want to learn how to speak Spanish fluently, the first level might be to learn 5 new words per week and a more advanced level might be having a 10-minute conversation in Spanish each week with the ultimate goal of traveling through Spain and being able to converse with the locals.

The book is very approachable and a fun read. Some appreciation of nerdom is suggested as he references everything from Luke Skywalker to James Bond to Jason Bourne to Katniss Everdeen to illustrate his point.

Kamb calls upon the reader to even go as far as to create their own character or alter-ego – think Clark Kent/Superman.

He also classifies the different type of quests that we can embark on (i.e. physical, mental/spiritual, business, adventure, etc.).

This is all part of the hero’s journey that he wants us to take so that we can grow and develop into our best selves.

“The goal is to present yourself with challenges you are capable of overcoming but which are still challenging enough to engage all your attention.”

Since I was so familiar with his website, the book wasn’t revelatory but rather a good refresher for me on Kamb’s thesis and approach.

For the newbie, there is a lot of information to digest. The book is not intended to be read in one sitting but to be a resource that you keep referring to along your journey.

I appreciate that throughout the book Kamb included stories of “rebel heroes” from his “rebellion” who were able to “level up”.

He is also quick to show his gratitude for all the bloggers and writers that he turns to for inspiration.

The book successfully transmits to the reader the spirit of his website and helps you understand why he has been able to build such a large community of change.

Review: “Embrace the Suck”

I am absolutely the target audience for Embrace the Suck, a memoir by Stephen Madden, former editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, about his time spent doing CrossFit.

He chronicles a two-year period in his life where he “immersed himself in the culture, diet and psyche of CrossFit” and share what he learned about himself along the way.

The book should perfectly appeal to someone like myself who has been doing CrossFit for almost 5 years and has competed, attended camp, visited affiliates gyms around the U.S. and abroad, etc. However, the book falls flat.

If the aim of the book is to provide a deep dive into CrossFit via one man’s experience, Madden fails to capture the heart and spirit of the sport and community.

Anyone who picks up the book that is unfamiliar with CrossFit will not takeaway much more than what they could have learned in health magazine and blogs.

Further, Madden misguides people by harping on this false idea that CrossFit makes its a goal to push people to the point of puking. He writes, “I wear my Pukie the Clown T-shirt with excellent pride”.

It is like when the media focused on the hidden evils of the sport and that everyone is going to get rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo).

No matter whether I have been training at a box locally or in Las Vegas or in Bangkok, I have never met a coach or athlete that encouraged anyone to push themselves to the point of causing physical harm to themselves.

I am sure they are exceptions, but Madden makes it sound like the norm.

If then the book is to provide one person’s own story about how they tested their limits and conquered their fears, than Madden also lost me.

He recounts his youth and depicts himself as this unathletic overweight kid, but then tells us about how he started playing hockey in third grade and was a killer on the ice and later about his career as an adult as a cyclist.

Maddens seems to want to play up this struggle he has of separating his current self from his image of himself as a “slow, fat kid”.

I don’t want to discount or deny his own experience, but the narrative feels strained and gasping at straws to make it resonate with the reader and have the emotional impact he desires.

My favorite section of the book is when Madden travels to Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend the SEALFIT 20X Challenge with Mark Divine.

As SEALFIT describes, “20X event is a one day (12-14 hour) intensive delivered by SEALFIT certified coaches at CrossFit gyms and other training sites around the country.

The purpose of 20X is straightforward and clear: to break down your inner limitations and immediately expand your definition of your capabilities as an athlete and human being.” Madden uses the experience to prove he is “good enough”.

He and the other attendees are put through the ringer as they endure endless physical and mental challenges.

It’s awesome and one can clearly understand why it could be life-changing. But then Madden comes out of left field and shares the following exchange after the hours spent in the mud, carrying rocks, running and being fatigued beyond belief:

“‘Madden?’ Divine is in front of me. ‘What’s the most important thing you learned this year?’

‘Love is the answer, sir.’”

Madden later echoes this idea that love is the underlying reason of why he was able to “embrace the suck” and push his limits at the conclusion of the book.

The problem is, and while he might believe the answer to be very true to him, Madden did little to explain how he got to this thinking.

He tries to say that all the ups and downs were buoyed by the support he received from his wife and children and gym mates and even his mother who encouraged him to play sports as a kid. But it just didn’t register.

Perhaps if the book was more well written then I would have more empathy for this epiphany that he has.

However, Madden provides little to the reader to give us reason to believe he didn’t know this the whole time.

Madden tries to be informative about CrossFit and the culture that surrounds it, but doesn’t articulate why the community is so strong and why the sport has proven to be more than a fad.

And he tries to take us on this personal journey, but he does not lay the groundwork that makes us really care.

The book is fine and is an easy read but I believe Madden could have done much better. He could have pushed himself a bit harder as a writer to produce something that truly inspires.

Review: “American Grit” / “Strong”

Last month, two new reality competition shows premiered on TV focused around the idea of mental and physical strength. On paper, they seemed like they would be right up my alley.

“American Grit” on Fox, hosted by WWE superstar John Cena, takes four teams into the wintery wilderness to face a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges.

Each team is led by a decorated veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces representing respectively the Army, Navy, Marines and Seals.

The contestants meet the requisite mix of cliches that you would find on “Survivor” (i.e. the quiet but manly lumberjack, the huge but sensitive body builder, the glamorous but tomboy equestrian).

However, each has a story of adversity that they have overcome and a deep desire to prove their mental fortitude.

Every week they compete in an ‘Evolution’ – a lengthy challenge in which the winning team is safe from elimination.

For example, in the first week the teams had to carry a huge log through multiple obstacles for over 3 miles.

The military advisors/coaches of the losing teams must pick one team member to send to the ‘Circus’ – an obstacle course that ends with an endurance challenge.

The endurance challenge goes as long as it takes for someone to finally give up and ring out – they use a bell similar to the Navy Seals.

In the second episode, contestants had to do 10 burpees and then submerge themselves in ice cold water.

This was repeated over and over until one contestant actually fainted. The teams over the duration of the series will slowly whittle down until only one team remains and its members will split a $1,000,000 prize.

‘Strong’ on NBC, hosted by American professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, features 10 females contestants all looking to get in shape and get strong.

They are each paired with a personal trainer whose backgrounds range from boxing to MMA to CrossFit to Cirque du Soleil.

In addition to their daily one-on-one training, the pairs compete together to save themselves from elimination.

Then there is a second challenge in which the winning pair gets to decide who will face the other team in the elimination round.

Finally, there is a 4-story elimination tower that the two pairs must race through trying to finish first to stay in the competition. The winning pair will split a $500,000 prize.

The challenges have ranged from sprints to bar hangs to bench press. They are not easy and are reminiscent of metcons that you would find in a CrossFit class.

At the end of each episode, they show the transformation of the eliminated contestant and they have all been amazing.

More importantly, rather than focus on pounds lost, they show metrics centered around the increase in muscle mass and decrease in body fat percentage.

So where do these shows go wrong? In both instances these are reality shows and so drama reigns. More time is always given to the bickering and the strategy.

For me, that often is tiresome. I’d rather see on ‘Strong’ more explanation of the training methods used.

Plus, they make no mention of nutrition, though one has to assume the contestants are following some plan to complement all the exercise.

‘American Grit’ is less concerned with the drama, but perhaps that is because the veterans that are coaching each team get to make the calls and John Cena has little tolerance for contestants who are disrespectful or whiny.

So where do they go right? When the contestants reveal their motivation and tell their stories of adversity, the shows both soar.

It is hard not to start rooting for them when you hear, for instance, how one contestant on ‘American Grit’ broke both her hands and had to have her father feed, clothe and bathe her for two years.

Or of the contestant on ‘Strong’ whose life unraveled when she found out that her husband was cheating on her.

Of course the contestants want to win the money, but most also are searching for that inner strength that has been buried deep inside.

They want to be healthier both mentally and physically, and part of that journey, if it is on a trivial reality show, is to force themselves to dig deep and go beyond their normal day-to-day.

They aren’t just watching, they are doing. And some of them needed a trainer or a coach, like a hard-ass former Marine, to tell them that they can do it and they believe in them.

I understand that need. I have a had a charmed life in the scheme of things and so I’m looking to become stronger, to face fears and push my limits.

But I also rely on my coaches to make me uncomfortable, telling me to get back on the bar, do another pull-up or to keep going.

‘Strong’ sometimes feels a bit too formulaic, but there are moments of vulnerability that keep me interested in seeing these women succeed.

‘American Grit’ applied reality show casting 101 to start but when you submerge yourself in ice water or carrying a log for 3-miles, all the noise of these loud personalities are quickly drowned out by the realization that shit just got real.

Plus, they get just a brief glimpse as to the training that are Armed Forces go through before they even start facing the evils of this world.

I’ll be tuning into both each week.

Review: “That Sugar Film”

I am currently in the middle of a 21-day sugar detox – no sugar, no alcohol, no processed foods. 

This week while searching for something to watch, I came upon That Sugar Film – a 2014 documentary by Australian actor and director Damon Gameau.

It seemed only appropriate as I am trying to understand what role sugar plays in my life that I check it out.

In the film, Damon is awaiting the birth of his first child and having led a mostly sugar-free lifestyle for the past three years decides he wants to understand the effect of sugar on the human body as it has become so prevalent in our diets worldwide.

With the help of a team of doctors and nutritionists, he decides to consume the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar per day – the average daily amount consumed by Australians – for 60 days.

He self imposes a rule that all the sugar must be hidden in low fat foods. No soda, no confectionary and no ice cream.

Basically 40 teaspoons without eating sweets or junk food. He will also maintain his weekly amount of moderate exercise.

Damon’s focus on these low fat foods is that in the 1970’s the sugary industry institutionalized the low fat movement. Sugar was exonerated.

The problem is that low fat doesn’t mean low sugar. (My friend Craig does an excellent job explaining in this blog post how we came to that thinking.)

As you might imagine, Damon gains weight over the 60 days. The increase in his daily consumption of sugar leads to him accumulating visceral fat – body fat that is stored within the abdominal cavity around a number of important internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines.

When you accumulate a lot of fat in that area it increases your risk of metabolic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Damon gained almost 19 pounds, added 7% body fat and increased his waist size by almost 4 inches.

That’s insane! Further, his triglyceride levels almost doubled. Tryglycerides area a type of fat (lipid) in your blood that at a high level can increase your risk of heart disease.

Towards the end of the 60 days, Damon had become moody, lethargic and generally felt unwell. He never felt full as the more you eat high sugary foods the more you want to eat sugary foods.

Your insulin levels spike and then crash and the body’s only way to try and stabilize you is by craving more sugar.

He had put his body through the ringer over a short period of time and the culprit was clear.

The amazing fact was that his daily caloric intake had not changed. The sugar industry has pushed this idea that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

But that is just not true. Further, our Western culture tells us that if you are overweight that you need to either exercise more or eat less. But you can’t just cut calories because the source of the calories matters.

The film moves at a good pace. We don’t have to suffer through everyday of his sugar diet. There are some visual flourishes and celebrity cameos that help explain all the history and science behind sugar.

He takes a trip to visit an Aboriginal tribe that felt the effects when sugar – in the form of soda and other treats – was introduced to their diet.

Damon also goes to America to learn more about the how and why. He even makes a devastating pit stop in Kentucky to see first-hand “Mountain Dew Mouth” – a scene that will quickly make you run around the school yard slapping soda cans out of the hand of every kid.

The documentary is eye-opening and it is making me really question how, if at all, I want to allow sugar back in my life post-cleanse.

“That Sugar Film” is now available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.